Chennai Super Kings may hog the limelight in the forthcoming IPL IV season, but right now, it is Chennai’s crime scenario that has made headlines in all the major national media. Murders, burglaries and bank heists - the last of which ended as an 'encounter' killings of the suspects by the police - has lead to the inevitable question. How equipped is our city police when it comes to tackling crime, which appears to be in no hurry to take a day off?
Starting with the January 1 murder of a woman in Nungambakkam while her sister lay helpless and scared brainless near her, crime seems to have hit a bullish run. By the third week of the month, close to 16 murders had taken place. Along the way, (on January 7), an attempt to rob the ATM of a nationalised bank in Triplicane had occurred.
And then came two daring bank heists. On January 23, armed men walked off with Rs 19 lakhs from a nationalized bank. Within weeks they struck again. On February 20, they looted Rs 14 lakhs from another bank, with the same modus operandi. Walk into a bank during the lunch hour, when mandatory power cut is on, threaten the staff with firearms ( fake or real is beside the point), collect the cash and walk away.
And like a badly scripted Wild West film, the banks targeted by the suspects had no CCTV (Closed Circuit Television Camera) , making them bold enough to waltz in and out without bothering with a face mask to conceal their identity. This cockiness of course cost them their lives. Police tracked down the five suspects based on neighbourhood info, and all five - four from Bihar and another from West Bengal were killed in a shootout at Velachery. This was on February 22 and on February 25, a 79-year old woman had been murdered at home in Madipakkam.
Only late last year, media reports hailed Chennai as a safe haven for women, based on the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report for 2009. As per that, Chennai stood on slot 34 among 35 mega cities in crimes against women.
Only last year, Chennai had emerged as a hub of fake currency. A couple of years earlier, the serial murders in July had the police sweating. Educational institutions too have unwittingly been drawn into crime, with reports of north Indian student touts terrorizing those from their home state in Chennai.
For the last couple of years the Chennai police have been hard pressed to tackle white collar crimes, including those on cyberspace. Prior to that - specially during 2006 and 2007 - a spate of grille offenders ruled the roost, burgling homes after removing the iron grille. Many of these offenders were thought to be from Kolkata. From 2004, Chennai-bound travelers were also victims of the 'biscuit bandits'.
Clearly, the picture has changed drastically in the last few years, and gone are the days when crime was restricted to robbery, burglary and murder. The city itself has witnessed a kaleidoscopic shift in its population and has become more gregarious and multicultural across all strata, including crime.
When J Jayalalithaa assumed charge as chief minister last year, she said that even chain snatchers had fled to neighbouring states - and affirmed her commitment to affording law and order top priority. Days ahead of the encounter deaths of the suspects in the two bank heists, the chief minister had asked the police to control crime with an iron hand.
However, given that cross border criminality is on the rise, and with various other types of crime breaking loose with regular frequency, traditional methods of policing will just not do. Many experts have said that a re-boot is the need of the hour, and the police has to reinvent itself to tackle new trends in crime.
"Our training programs are continuous and refresher courses on new techniques in crime are always done, and bank heists are not modern day crimes" says a top police official, speaking exclusively to this columnist on the many challenges ahead. Pointing out that the media had highlighted the lack of CCTV cameras, the official, refuting allegations that crime is on an over drive, adds "Although January saw a rise in the monthly average (of murder), the figures were well below average in February. "
When asked how the same police can shift focus from VIP bandobast to cracking murder or a spate of burglary, he feels, "Good policing lies in methodology, not in number of people deployed." And when it comes to finding the clues, the people of Chennai too should come forward with information , he feels.
Police officers say that sharing and exchanging information between cops from one state and another goes on all the time. But nothing comes close to information from ground zero.
"People should come forward and share data voluntarily. This does not mean people are suspects, nor is it an attempt to demean them in any way," they add.
It is against this backdrop that a new order was given out two days ago, asking landlords to furnish details of tenants from other states. The initiative has been received with mixed feelings. Although a few are wary, others like 65-year old R Srinivasan of Alwarpet say interacting with the police does not have the stigma that it used to have decades ago . "But police should stand firm on such issues - be it traffic issues, or getting universities to compile a profile of students from other states," he adds.
Police say they are ready for challenges. "We know our priority - and will take steps to protect people and property. Chennai is still a safe haven for women. But people should listen to the police. When we say don’t let strangers in, or compromise on security be it at home or a bank premises, please pay attention," say the men in khakhi.
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